Things to look for in an iPhone camera replacement app (updated)

ProCamera, Camera+, iPhone camera replacement apps
ProCamera (left) and Camera+ (right) screenshots

The most important app any mobile photographer has on their device is a good camera app. Capturing the best photo is paramount.

Since I first wrote this post back in October 2010, a lot has changed with iPhone camera replacement apps, the iPhone’s Camera app and how we use and share photos. This has added even more tools, features and requirements to the apps that iPhoneographers use every time we shoot.

Rather than keep patching my original post, I thought I would revisit and update it here. There are several camera replacement apps that have all of these features, including ProCamera, Camera+, and Camera Awesome. There are many other high-profile apps that are frustratingly missing one or more key features. When I test a camera replacement app, this is my checklist.

Apple’s Camera app is fast and easy to use. The latest version of Camera has an excellent zoom and HDR in addition to the geo-tagging it’s had for a while. With the improvements in the iOS 4 and 5 Camera app, there are fewer and fewer compelling reasons to purchase and use a camera replacement app. By camera replacement app, I don’t mean a camera app that applies specialized filters. I mean a camera app with additional, specialized tools and features that give you greater options than the stock Camera when capturing your photos.

A good camera replacement app should build on Apple’s Camera’s foundations and offer more advanced tools to the iPhoneographer. A camera replacement app has to do a good job with the over-and-above features in order to get me to use it instead of Apple’s Camera. Here are the features that I look for in a camera replacement app. The list has grown quite a bit since the original six features.

For me, a camera replacement app needs to do these things well:

1. Speed. A good camera replacement app needs to be fast and nimble. It needs to get you shooting (and shooting again) quickly so you don’t miss your shot. This means that the app has to be fast itself. Also, its set of tools need to help the photographer, and not hinder. They need to be quick to figure out and easy to access and use. The best camera replacement apps have the most-used tools in easy reach. Tools should not get in the way of the camera or the viewfinder. The tools should never come at the expense of the size of the iPhone’s viewfinder, which is pretty much most of the screen.

2. Good composition grid lines, preferably rule of thirds. Many of the more usable camera replacements are offering other user selectable composition grids, such as a pro grid and the Golden Rectangle, making the viewfinder work more like a DSLR or point-and-shoot. It’s a good option.

3. Easy to use focus and exposure targets. Nearly all high-end camera replacement apps now separate the focus and exposure targets, letting you choose the best spots in your image for the camera to set to. Best focus and exposure may not always be the same spot in an image. This feature is easy to figure out and use in the best apps. My favorite is hold and drag to split and set the targets. It’s a camera, not rocket science. It shouldn’t be a confusing series of double and triple taps to set the exposure.

4. Good anti-shake image stabilization for my often caffeinated hands. Basically, the camera waits until your hands are steady enough before releasing the shutter. Some camera replacement apps let you adjust the levels of shake. Regardless, the level of anti-shake needs to be high enough to help make your images sharper and less blurry, but not set so high that you miss your shot while the camera stabilizes.

5. It absolutely needs a fast recovery or shot-to-shot time — less than a second before the camera is ready to take another shot. This is one area where Apple’s camera has always excelled. I like to take multiple safety shots and having a quick turnaround time makes that a lot easier. Before Apple opened up the camera APIs in the latest operating systems, some camera apps took between 3-7 seconds before they were ready to shoot again. Some camera replacements still do, which is really unthinkable now and lazy development. By that time, your shot is gone.

6. A good burst mode is another reason for a third-party camera app. Apple’s Camera doesn’t offer a burst mode. If you need multiple shots for an action sequence or just for safety, a good, fast, full-resolution burst mode is a nice feature to have.

7. Full-resolution support. It needs to support the full resolution of the device you are shooting on. An essential feature, this one is a no-brainer.

7. Geotagging. Location data has become an essential feature of any good photo app. Now, so many apps and online services take advantage of the embedded Geotags in an image, which help map images for people you share them with or just to help you remember where you took the photo.

8. A good, full-resolution digital zoom — something more than just an in-app crop. I like a camera replacement app with a good digital zoom that resamples images to the iPhone’s full-size output. Apple’s digital zoom in iOS 4 and newer operating systems has raised the bar for iPhone digital zoom. It’s sharp without the halos, noise and artifacts of some sharpening algorithms. While there are those who would argue that any digital upsampling is worse than simply cropping, Apple’s new zoom proves that with a good algorithm, a good digital zoom when not used excessively is better than cropping or nothing at all.

Many camera replacement apps also include other really good advanced features, such as exposure control and white balance lock. For me, these other features are great, but not deal-breakers.

Camera replacement apps aren’t needed by everyone. The Apple Camera app works great. But a good camera replacement with the right tools and features can sometimes help make the difference between a good shot and a great shot, whether it’s through the leveling and composition capabilities of viewfinder grid lines or improved sharpness in a photo.

What are some of the features you look for in an iPhone camera replacement app? Share them in the comments below.





About Marty Yawnick 1830 Articles
Marty is a self-employed graphic designer in the Fort Worth/Dallas Metroplex. He is an avid Rangers baseball, Chicago Cubs, Packers and Highbury Arsenal fan. In addition to capturing random moments with whatever camera is close by (usually his iPhone), his other interests include coffee, Pink Floyd, film, music, and traveling in seats 5E and 5F with his fiancé.
  • zerozero31

    I think you pretty much covered it. I bought loads (and I mean loads) of camera replacement apps. My current fave is ProCamera for straight shooting with any post editing done with Snapseed and/or CrossProcess.

    I use Hipstamatic for 'analog' shooting (particularly with the new Jane and Foxy lenses in combo with the Blanko, Ina's 1982, Sugar, Blanko Freedom 13 and Rock BW-11 films).

    Now, if the default camera app had separate exposure/focus controls + an option to shoot square format images (without having to crop your images) then I think the market for camera replacement apps would be killed in one go.

  • Mar

    A camera replacement app has to have low noise output, has to not overexpose whites, take sharp pictures even when I'm walking, auto refocus quickly, plus full res and fast recovery.

  • Gaston Graf

    I fully agree with you, Marty. What I look for when trying new camera apps is

    – loading speed
    – picture quality
    – ease of use
    – reliability

    Currently my favorite camera apps are:
    The Apple camera – cause it's fast and reliable
    Fast Camera – because of it's hyper-fast burst mode and picture quality despite the speed. I use it a lot for macros because insects are often moving, or flowes are moved by the wind.
    Hipstamatic and Hipsta D – for the analog fun. To me, the Hipstamatic is not just a camera app; it's a real camera simulator.
    Bracket Mode – for the basic shots needed to create HDRs. It only saves the photos but does no processing. I do that in ProHDR.
    645Pro – for the outstanding picture quality. Currently. the 645pro seems to be the only app that saves photos with 96dpi, not just 72dpi like the other apps. But despite the brilliant picture quality, the app is still a pain in the ass to use because it's still very unstable and you need a lot of patience cause it takes endless time to save the first two shots before you can take a new one. I use it only if I am in a situation where I can repeat the shot in case the app crashes again because it ruined me already a lot of good shots.
    CCD – in my eyes the best dRAW saving app. It's simple, easy to use and reliable. I use it instead of the 645pro when I don't want to take the risk of instability.
    Hueless – well, for the b/w shots, ya know.
    Lomora and Lomora Pro – for Lomo shots. Both Lomoras off the nicest Lomo effects currently available, after my taste.
    6×6 and 6×7 for clean shots in the resp picture format which I post process later. If only the 645pro would run stable, then I wouldn't need the other apps anymore.

    Beside of the above listed camera apps there are some more that I sometimes use, such as Instant110, Snapster, Booster, Quick Lomo Pro, Slow Shutter and Night Cap.

    • I'll be taking a look at CCD pretty soon. I'm curious as to how good the image quality really is. I agree with you somewhat about the Lomora apps, especially Lomora 2. I need to revisit Lomora 3 for myself. This developer uses pricing tactics that haven't won him many friends in the iPhoneography community.


  • sathyacen

    Very good advantages its having. All qualities like zooming, lens, shooting capacity, memory space, screen set up every thing is in excellent position. so for this quality alone will buy iPhone for certain.

  • I like Camera+

  • iClifDotMe

    One thing I didn't see mentioned was the ability to use the volume control as a shutter release. Apple's Camera app obviously allows this, and it is supported by both Camera+ and ProCamera as well.

    While it may seem like just a matter of convenience to some, once you realize you can use a set of headphones with inline volume controls as a remote shutter release, the value becomes much clearer. And of course, Gizmon iCA users tend to prefer apps that support the case's integrated shutter button.

    Personally, I take 99% of my shots in square format, mostly with Hipstamatic, which also supports the volume trigger.

  • Marc

    Great info! I'm just learning with iPhone Camera Apps. I am going to test some of the ones suggested here. I recently started using lens for my iPhone because of the frustration with the zoom being so distorted.